Wednesday, 29 August 2012

CD Review: British Steel, by Judas Priest (1980)

Taking a giant step towards commercialization and a broader fan base, Judas Priest achieve their breakthrough with British Steel, their sixth studio album. With shorter running lengths, a dramatic pulling back on the solos, and a more controlled Rob Halford curtailing most of his visits to the high register, British Steel is, for better or for worse, filled with radio-ready music.

The strategy worked to the benefit of popularizing the band at the time when the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was expanding the allure of metal. Longer term, the results were not as good for Judas Priest, the band's future albums for most of the rest of the decade slipping down the slope of too much mindless music attempting to garner cheap airtime and popularity with the single-celled crowd.

The flabby middle of the album is quite unfortunate, the band parking metal's soul in search of popularity, United being the worst of the bunch, a track almost intolerable in its juvenile pandering to pimple-faced fist-pumpers.  You Don't Have To Be Old To Be Wise and Living After Midnight are less nauseating, but no more inspired, both defaulting to the simplest of bland beats and steering clear of any complexity.

Fortunately, and although none of it is stellar, British Steel does deliver some fine heavy duty metal. Opener Rapid Fire is by far the best track, the aggressive riff riding a bulldozer and ploughing through a mud field in first gear, smoke billowing from an engine refusing to get bogged down. Breaking The Law is less inspired but just as purposeful, while the album ends with a couple of more serious selections, both The Rage and Steeler proving that Priest's heart is still made of a stern alloy. Steeler signs the album off with 100 seconds of wild glory, Tipton and Downing finally letting loose with unconstrained carnage, a wistful look back at where the band came from, radio be damned.


Rob Halford - Vocals
Glenn Tipton - Guitars
K. K. Downing - Guitars
Ian Hill - Bass
Dave Holland - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Rapid Fire - 9
2. Metal Gods - 7
3. Breaking The Law - 8
4. Grinder - 7
5. United - 5
6. You Don't Have To Be Old To Be Wise - 7
7. Living After Midnight - 6
8. The Rage - 8
9. Steeler - 8

Average: 7.22

Produced by Tom Allom.
Engineered by Lou Austin.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Movie Review: Troy (2004)

An epic adaptation of Homer's Iliad, Troy is a wildly enjoyable romp through ancient Greek mythology.  The mammoth scope of the Trojan War and the intriguing mix of characters involved in the siege, including kings, combatants, and their women, are brought to life with a lavish treatment enhanced by stunning cinematography and sweeping special effects.

It's the 8th century BC, and after years of warfare, king Agamemnon (Brian Cox) has almost succeeded in unifying all the Greek kings and armies under his command. The demi-god Achilles (Brad Pitt), the most fearsome warrior in the land, holds no respect for Agamemnon but does help in battles, as his destiny is to engage in constant war. King Odysseus (Sean Bean) is loyal to Agamemnon and one of the few men that Achilles respects, and acts as intermediary between the two.

Odysseus: Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity. And so we ask ourselves: will our actions echo across the centuries? Will strangers hear our names long after we are gone and wonder who we were, how bravely we fought, how fiercely we loved?

While the coastal city of Troy remains independent behind its imposing defensive walls, Agamemnon's brother king Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) negotiates a peace treaty with Troy's two princes, Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom). Hector is older and more mature, but the younger Paris is less experienced, more impetuous, and foolishly falls in love with Helen (Diane Kruger), Menelaus' wife. When Helen decides to join Paris on his return journey to Troy, Menelaus is personally outraged, but Agamemnon recognizes the opportunity to use the illicit love affair as an excuse to launch an all-out assault to subjugate Troy.

Agamemnon: Peace is for the women, and the weak. Empires are forged by war.

Assembling a massive army of 1,000 ships and 50,000 soldiers, including Achilles and his young cousin Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund), Agamemnon wages a vicious war against a stubborn Troy and its king Priam (Peter O'Toole). The campaign is full of bloody battles, unexpected triumphs, and setbacks for both sides, in the midst of which Achilles nurtures a romantic relationship with Hector's cousin the priestess Brisies (Rose Byrne), before the most famous ruse in warfare history is conceived by Odysseus to turn the tide of battle.

Thetis, Achilles' mother, to her son: If you stay in Larissa, you will find peace. You will find a wonderful woman, and you will have sons and daughters, who will have children. And they'll all love you and remember your name. But when your children are dead, and their children after them, your name will be lost. If you go to Troy, glory will be yours. They will write stories about your victories for thousands of years and the world will honor your name. But if you go to Troy, you will never come back, for your glory walks hand-in-hand with your doom. And I shall never see you again.

The Troy script by David Benioff is a modern-day masterpiece of cinematic literature. Deriving an elegant and relatively compact narrative out of Homer's sprawling story, and adopting a historical rather than mythological approach, Benioff successfully achieves the difficult task of introducing a large number of essential characters and events, and ensuring that they remain distinct and memorable. He also conjures up an impressive number of epic dialogue lines, which, while undoubtedly self-consciously pompous, help to capture the cross-millennial significance of ancient history's most intriguing war.

Odysseus: This war will never be forgotten, nor will the heroes who fight in it. 

With a solid screenplay to work from, director Wolfgang Petersen can focus on breaking out of his typical love of confined spaces, and he simply soars into the wide expanse of mythology. Working with cinematographer Roger Pratt, Petersen fills Troy with a succession of stunning images, including the thousand Greek ships approaching Troy's shoreline, and directs the combat scenes with brilliantly choreographed zest.

Petersen's fluid aerial cameras capture armies marching and then crashing into each other with dreadful force, the horrors of war elevated to meet the merciless standards of mythological legend. The computer-generated enhancements are seamlessly integrated, and Petersen keeps the humans at the centre of Troy, using the microchips to full advantage but never allowing them to seize control.

Odysseus, to Achilles: War is young men dying and old men talking. You know this. Ignore the politics.

It would have been easy for the actors to be swallowed up by the spectacle, but Brad Pitt delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance as Achilles, a man born for war but finding nothing worth fighting for.

Achilles: Imagine a king who fights his own battles. Wouldn't that be a sight?

A killing machine, a keen observer of the world, and a magnetic lover, Pitt creates an Achilles worthy of his exalted place in legendary history. Eric Bana almost matches Pitt, sword swing for sword swing, Hector emerging as by far the most noble character in Troy, protective of his younger brother, defender of Troy, caring for his family, respectful of his father, and an expert combat warrior.

Hector: All my life I've lived by a code and the code is simple: honour the gods, love your woman and defend your country. Troy is mother to us all. Fight for her!

The good performances continue, with Peter O'Toole a distinguished Priam, Rose Byrne feisty as Brisies in the face of prolonged physical threat, Sean Bean thoughtfully effective as Odysseus in his relatively few minutes of screen time, and Vincent Regan memorable as Achilles' faithful lieutenant Eudoros. Julie Christie gets one scene, but delivers one of the best lines in the movie (quoted above), as Thetis, Achilles' mother. Slightly less convincing are a couple of the younger actors, both Orlando Bloom and Garrett Hedlund lacking the necessary presence to hold their own amidst the overwhelming grandeur.

The James Horner music score is appropriately exalted, and employing a less-is-more philosophy, at times makes use of minimal sounds to brilliant effect, as in the drums that provide the backdrop for the battle between Achilles and Hector. Vocalist Tanja Carovska adds a few anguished passages to lament the mass slaughter of men in meat grinder battles, and to the credit of Horner and Petersen, the soundtrack is never repetitive despite the film's 162 minute running length.

Troy is an ambitious and immersive experience, a magnificent cinematic achievement worthy of representing the monumental legends that inspired it.

Odysseus: If they ever tell my story, let them say... I walked with giants. Men rise and fall like the winter wheat... but these names will never die. Let them say I lived in the time of Hector, tamer of horses. Let them say... I lived in the time of Achilles.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Movie Review: Sleepless In Seattle (1993)

An unashamedly syrupy romance, Sleepless In Seattle concocts a relationship between America's favourite perky sweetheart Meg Ryan and America's favourite sensitive everyman Tom Hanks. The film's dedication to the magic of love is strong enough to withstand the nuisance of the two leads living separate lives, a continent apart.

Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) is a widower struggling to get over the loss of his wife. With his eight year old son Jonah (Ross Malinger) in tow, Sam relocates to Seattle to try and start a new life, but 18 months later, his is still in the emotional doldrums. Desperate, Jonah calls-in to the national radio show of celebrity shrink Dr. Martha. Eventually Sam gets on the phone and Dr. Martha cajoles him into expressing his emotions to the whole country. Thousands of women listeners are touched by his story.

Among the listeners is Baltimore-based reporter Annie Reed (Meg Ryan), engaged to be married to the loving but insufferably predictable Walter (Bill Pullman). Annie finds herself inexplicably drawn to Sam, and begins to seriously doubt her relationship with Walter. Sam embarks on a tentative relationship with co-worker Victoria (Barbara Garrick), while unsanctioned interventions by Annie's friend Becky (Rosie O'Donnell) and Jonah attempt to prod Sam and Annie towards their joint destiny.

The magic of true love as imagined by women is the unshakable core of Sleepless In Seattle, and director Nora Ephron (who also co-wrote the script) in unapologetic in layering on the tear-inducing liquid sugar early and often in large, gooey spoonfuls. The soundtrack is a succession of classic romantic favourites including the likes of As Time Goes ByA Kiss To Build A Dream On and When I Fall In Love, and the movie borrows its themes from the 1957 Cary Grant - Deborah Kerr classic An Affair To Remember, which is only considered one of the most romantic films of all time.

Two of the hottest stars of the time, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan make for an appealing would-be couple, despite sharing precious little screen time with each other. Hanks portrays Sam as the perfect catch for any woman, as dictated by the script, while being genuinely affecting as a heartbroken husband and father struggling to overcome the loss of the true love of his life. Ryan regularly risks overplaying her cute America's sweetheart persona, often betraying an actress ever so slightly over-confident about how much the audience loves her. She makes up for it with some terrific reaction scenes where she commandingly reveals the stripped away essence of a woman realizing that true romance is both currently missing in her life and calling to her from the other end of the radio.

The supporting cast fulfils its mandate in contributing to the magic-of-true-love theme, with the consequence that some characters become so much cannon fodder as they stand in the way of the central relationship. Bill Pullman's Walter is set up as the sacrificial lamb, his character burdened with so many flaws that ditching him is merciful relief. Similarly, Victoria is saddled with a hyena laugh that, while comic, dooms her from behind the starting gate. Rosie O'Donnell and Rob Reiner get small roles as the token witty friends. Young Ross Malinger joined the long list of child actors whose debuts coincided with their best performance, and he was unfortunately unable to translate his excellent portrayal as Jonah into a meaningful career.

If the script replaces wit and realism with the quest for perfect love, it does leave room for a thread of humour. A satirical manly recounting of the tragic ending of The Dirty Dozen as an antidote to all the gushing estrogen hits the comic bulls-eye. Ephron also treads softly in a variety of locations, with Chicago, New York and Baltimore as well as Seattle all playing their role in the transcontinental love flow.

What Sleepless In Seattle lacks in subtlety, it makes up in honest intentions. This is a story of love at its most enchanting, the fairy with the magic wand perhaps not visible but very much in evidence.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Tremors (1990)

A comic horror flick, Tremors wins on style and attitude. The story of giant subterranean snakes terrorizing a tiny community is as silly as they come, and it gets the treatment that it deserves, heavy on fun, character, and charisma.

In and around the Nevada desolate desert town of Perfection (population: 14), the resourceful Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) do odd manual jobs and live an uncomplicated life, but hope for better things in bigger towns. They meet Rhonda (Finn Carter), a seismology student on a summer assignment to monitor seismometers in the area. She reports unusual activity, and soon people and cattle are found dead, sometimes gruesomely dismembered.

Rhonda, Val and Earl barely survive a close encounter with an ugly, large snake-like beast that travels underground and carries a huge appetite for soft human flesh. They retreat to Perfection, and team up with the local population, which fortunately includes the heavily-armed survivalist couple Burt (Michael Gross) and Heather (country music star Reba McEntire). A siege ensues, with the humans having to survive against repeated attacks from three of the hideous predators.

Tremors plays up personality, and gets away with it. There is nothing here to be taken seriously, and even the more horror-oriented scenes of the monsters devouring victims are more invigorating than scary. Ron Underwood, directing his first feature length movie, succeeds in making the locale and characters much more important than the monster elements. The setting evokes the imagery from every Roadrunner cartoon, and the film plays with the same sensibilities.

Tremors finds a winning combination in Val and Earl, two men rough around the edges, mostly made up of edges, and expertly brought to life by Bacon and Ward. Limited yet resourceful, always talking about the need for a plan but rarely coming up with one that fully works, Val and Earl possess the perfect set of handy skills to create a fair fight with mammoth but blind underground snakes.

Running an efficient 96 minutes, Tremors keeps things simple, Underwood moving the action along quickly, promptly arriving at the energetic people versus monsters moments, and allowing the slick interplay between Bacon and Ward to provide plenty of sharp relief at regular intervals. The rest of the cast members are there mostly to make up the numbers of local residents and token victims. Finn Carter tries for perky but cannot shake well-entrenched daytime soap and television acting skills, nor does she really need to, while Michael Gross and Reba McEntire make more of an impression as survivalists with a basement that the Pentagon would be proud of.

In concept and delivery, Tremors burrows its way to ground shaking entertainment in a compact and boisterous package.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 24 August 2012

CD Review: Peace Sells...But Who's Buying? by Megadeth (1986)

Megadeth's second studio album, Peace Sells...But Who's Buying? maintains the breakneck speed and maniacal intensity established by the debut Killing Is My Business...And Business Is Good! With the band now sounding tighter and more professional, Peace Sells...But Who's Buying? efficiently presents its eight solid tracks, a set that contains no disappointments.

Against the backdrop of a record label change, out of control substance abuse, and classic cover art introducing the redesigned rivethead and a destroyed United Nations building, Mustaine's partnership with Chris Poland blossoms, the shredding and solos a prominent feature throughout the album. David Ellefson's bass and Gar Samuelson's drums never waver from delivering a sustained rabid intensity to underpin the mayhem. This was to be the final album for Poland and Samuelson, prior to the former's one shot return for 2004's The System Has Failed.

Album opener Wake Up Dead takes its place up there among the ranks of the best heavy metal tunes ever recorded. With just enough smattering of lyrics to add zing to the overall instrumental magic, Mustaine finds the sweet spot of inspiration, packing into Wake Up Dead the essence of metal: enough voltage to compete with lightning; controlled speed to slice through history; and a couple of killer signature changes, the last one launching Wake Up Dead onto the twisted industrial metallic dance floor with a dangerously contagious bouncy riff. But the heart of the track is one full minute of embroidered chugging guitar, torque and horsepower coming to obliterate thick slabs of concrete with supreme beauty. There have been other epic metal album openers, but few as good as this.

Semi-title track Peace Sells snags a threatening hook and works it to a fast forward fury, Mustaine's vocals descending into a frenzied anarchy, while the final track, appropriately titled My Last Words, is the most lyrical selection while also managing to deliver the beefiest construction.

The rest of the album is consistent if unspectacular, five more thrash standards, never lacking in energy and purpose but just slightly misplacing the imagination.

Peace Sells...But Who's Buying? is one of the thrashiest of thrash albums from the genre's formative years, an uncompromising record, barreling down the highway out of control and with a massive snarl on its face.


Dave Mustaine - Vocals, Guitars
Chris Poland - Guitars
David Ellefson - Bass
Gar Samuelson - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Wake Up Dead - 10
2. The Conjuring - 7
3. Peace Sells - 9
4. Devils Island - 7
5. Good Mourning / Black Friday - 7
6. Bad Omen - 7
7. I Ain't Superstitious - 7
8. My Last Words - 8

Average: 7.75

Produced by Dave Mustaine and Randy Burns.
Engineered by Casey McMackin and Randy Burns.
Mixed by Paul Lani.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Movie Review: Fat City (1972)

A downbeat story of two boxers at different career stages but possibly united in a common destiny, Fat City is beautifully grim. There is nothing to celebrate, but much to admire, as director John Huston trains his cameras on the often intentionally neglected corners of society.

Aging boxer Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) and young upstart Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges) have a chance encounter at the local YMCA in a depressed neighbourhood of Stockton, California. They spar for a few minutes and go their separate ways, but not before Billy advises Ernie to seek out a trainer named Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto). Physically imposing but not naturally talented, Ernie makes a tentative start to his boxing journey under Ruben's guidance, experiencing both wins and losses in his early bouts. Ernie also gets into a relationship with the innocent but lively Faye (Candy Clark). After she gets pregnant, they get married, and Ernie's nascent boxing career sputters.

Meanwhile, Billy's life is headed on a steadily downward trajectory. Feeling sorry for himself and with only the briefest of past glories to sustain him, Billy hooks up with the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed and easily combustible Oma (Susan Tyrrell). Both Billy and Ernie have to resort to menial farm labour to place bread on the table, but while Ernie appears at ease with the occasional foray into the ring, Billy still dreams of a serious return to the sport, and teams up again with Ruben for another shot at glory.

With the emphasis on character and the agony of opportunities slipping away, Fat City sometimes slows to a crawl, waiting for Billy or Ernie to make the next, often wrong, decision, or to shake off the most recent drinking binge. But the drama is always propelled back in to motion, thanks to Keach and Bridges delivering powerful performances. Keach is a picture of moroseness, physically deteriorating and rarely smiling as he only sees hope in the rear-view mirror. Bridges is brighter, a man none too clear on the future but willing to smile as he greets it.

Compared to the glamour and glories residing at the pinnacle of boxing, Fat City is in a different world. Here, men get battered with no hope of any reward other than miserly pay to afford the next beer. Billy has no notable life skill, not even as a good boxer, and yet stepping back into the ring at his advanced age is the best that he can do to even hope for a better next week. Ernie may or may not be headed to the same place as Billy, but his prospects are not good. Already responsible for a wife and child and with only rudimentary boxing skills, it is difficult to imagine a future for Ernie that is much better than Billy's.

Billy and Ernie are only able to attract women who are as depressed or naive as they are. Susan Tyrrell earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as Oma, a highly charged, over-emotional woman so deep into the dead-end zone of life that she even manages to disgust Billy. The scenes between Billy and Oma are irresistibly painful to watch due to the raw destroyed humanity on display: a man and a woman with very little left to offer, and even the support that they provide to each other has an hourly half-life.

Candy Clark as Faye is perhaps the most optimistic character in the movie, a mix of mild manipulation and child-like innocence that she works to her advantage to snag Ernie. She is too clueless to realize his potentially severely limited value as a catch, but Fat City allows Ernie and Faye at least some self-perceived hope, drawn from relatively narrow experience with life, Ernie not yet encountering his life-defining moment.

Working from the Leonard Gardner screenplay (who adapted his own book), Huston captures without judgement the societal and human wreckage drifting towards the scuzzy end of the river. Fat City is an observant witness to lives squandered in pursuit of a desperate dream that was never there.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Movie Review: The Score (2001)

The two legendary actors who brought Don Corleone to life are finally united. A modern heist movie, The Score is reasonably satisfying but decidedly unspectacular.

Nick (Robert De Niro) is an expert thief who can break into any building and open any safe to steal the best protected jewels. The elderly Max (Marlon Brando, in his final completed movie) is Nick's handler, arranging jobs and buyers for the stolen goods. Nick lives in Montreal where he also owns a jazz club, but he refuses pull any jobs in the city, for fear of attracting attention in his home town. Diane (Angela Bassett) is his lover and very much aware of his secret life as a thief. Nick considers settling down with her to a life of normalcy.

When their most recent job turns sour due to the unexpected death of a buyer, Max convinces Nick to consider a daring high-risk, high-reward break-in of the Montreal Customs House to steal a precious jewel-encrusted sceptor. Max connects Nick with Jack (Edward Norton), an aggressive thief who has secured a job at the Customs House, pretending to be a dim-witted overnight janitorial assistant. With Jack as the inside man, Nick starts to plan the heist, hoping that this could be his last job before retiring for good from the dangerous world of burglary.

The Score creaks noticeably at the edges. Marlon Brando's character of Max is provided with a vague backstory of financial hardship imposed by an invisible foe and then dropped altogether. It may be extreme to call Brando's entire appearance in the movie a publicity stunt, but his character is, at best, underdeveloped and abandoned. Angela Bassett's role as Diane is also wafer thin. Her relationship with Nick is created for the sole purpose of providing him with a reason to consider quitting the criminal lifestyle, but Diane herself remains little more than a mirage, a blurry vision of the ideal woman with no details drawn in.

While character depth is not a strong point in The Score, De Niro and Norton do well to bring Nick and Jack to life, and ensure that the core of the film pulses with healthy tension. De Niro skates expertly through the movie with fluid ease, his face providing Nick with the background that the script neglects. Nick is too good at what he does to resist the next big job, yet wise enough to know that one more job may not be the best thing for him. The opening scene of a theft interrupted leaves little doubt that Nick can untangle himself from any mess that he finds himself in, and it is only Jack's unknown and erratic attributes, rather than his self-proclaimed bravado, that presents a challenge.

Norton gets the showiest role, as the self-confident Jack and pretend-retard janitor Brian. Norton is an effective counterweight to De Niro, but is less capable of filling the missing background story. The trio of screenwriters comprised of Scott Marshall Smith, Daniel E. Taylor, and Kario Salem conjure up no information about how Jack came to be who and where he is, and while obviously talented and ambitious, it is unclear whether or not the planned Customs House heist is even Jack's first job.

Director Frank Oz does well with the robbery scenes, where dialogue and character are less important, and stealth, smarts, and a battle between thief and technology take over. Both the unexpectedly tension-filled opening scene and the climactic attempt to steal the sceptor proceed with well-oiled precision. But the flustered ending lets the film down again, with the script abandoning Max's story and most egregiously overlooking the potential for a simple plea bargain to land Nick, Max and Jack in a lot of trouble.

The Score takes a solid shot, but does not strike the target cleanly.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Book Review: Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

A coming-of-age adventure, Treasure Island is a full-blooded tale of pirates, mutiny, siege, greed and intrigue in pursuit of buried treasure. Robert Louis Stevenson recounts a story of rough and desperate men risking all to gain wealth, with a young boy forced to rapidly attain manhood to survive the cut-throat treasure hunt.

Young Jack Hawkins helps his mother and ailing father to run the small Admiral Benbow inn along the waterfront in the English countryside. Billy Bones, a hard drinking former pirate, arrives for a prolonged stay, and he is harbouring a precious secret: the map of a secluded island, showing the location of treasure buried by the infamous pirate Captain Flint. Bones' former pirate colleagues, now his mortal enemies, eventually catch up with him, and he succumbs to alcoholism, leaving Jack in possession of the map.

With his father now dead, Jack teams up with the good Doctor Livesey and the rich landowner Squire Trelawney, and out of the port city of Bristol they organize an expedition on board the ship Hispaniola to find and retrieve the treasure. But the ship's cook, the one-legged Long John Silver, is also one of Flint's former colleagues, and he has plans to lead the crew in a mutiny and to secure the treasure for his own. With the violence threatening to erupt into the open, Jack has to take enormous risks to save his life and prevent the treasure from falling into evil hands.

Treasure Island is not necessarily an easy read. The combination of 19th century English, excessive marine terminology, and intensive pirate-speak burdens the book, rendering many passages impenetrable except to active modern day pirates with literary knowledge of olde English.

Stevenson also does not pull back on descriptive prose, expending many paragraphs in pursuit of the detailed geography of the treasure island or the minute movements of the good ship Hispaniola. Patience is required to wade through sentences that struggle mightily to maintain movement, but often appear to serve padding rather than plot.

The book derives its strength from the two central characters, Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. Narrator Jim Hawkins is transitioning from boy to man, and repeatedly takes risks and independent actions without knowing how his initiatives will unfold. That he often ends up doing the right thing is startling even to himself, and Hawkins represents a boy discovering the path to adulthood through the power of instinct combined with bravery.

Silver is a most intriguing character, smooth, manipulative, and deadly, despite hopping around on one leg. Able to charm people like the Squire Trelawney just as easily as he can control and intimidate a band of ruthless pirates, Silver meets his unlikely match in Hawkins, probably because Hawkins demonstrates the ingenuity that Silver himself possessed as a boy. While Silver's destiny sank into piracy, Hawkins latent skills are being shaped by his upbringing towards more legitimate pursuits, and Silver sees in Hawkins a now-abandoned alternative path for his own life. The relationship between the two holds the book together, as their mutual actions and reactions prompt each successive round of combat, deceit and negotiations in pursuit of treasure.

Treasure Island is filled with drunkenness, violence, murder, death threats, and rotting corpses. For a story presumably intended for a youthful audience, Stevenson reflects a time when becoming a man meant dealing with a less coddled reality. The era may be different, but the swashbuckling story of a boy taking charge of his destiny and growing up in a hurry retains its timeless appeal.

213 pages, including many small illustrations by Scott McKowen.
Published in hardcover by Sterling Publishing.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Movie Review: Total Recall (2012)

A remake of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger film and based on the 1966 Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale", the 2012 version of Total Recall is wholly unnecessary. Director Len Wiseman gets trapped into an endless succession of tiresome chases powered by computer generated imagery, resulting in byte-overload and a shamefully narrative-poor experience.

In a grim post-apocalyptic future, there are only two inhabitable territories on the globe. The United Federation of Britain comprises the former western Europe and holds the political power. The Colony (what used to be known as Australia) is where the poor and the labourers live. The two are connected by a high speed commuter shuttle system known as The Fall, which uses a tunnel drilled through the earth's core. Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) lives in the Colony with his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) and works in the UFB. Unsatisfied with his life, Quaid suffers from nightmares where he is part of an anti-UFB resistance movement.

Quaid approaches the Rekall agency, which embeds fake memories for the enjoyment of those who cannot afford real escapist vacations. Upon choosing to create a memory where he is a dangerous double-agent, Quaid's real identity is triggered: he is indeed a revolutionary, and teams up with fellow-rebel Melina (Jessica Biel) to fight for the cause of resistance leader Matthias Lair (Bill Nighy), with the intention of toppling the evil UFB Chancellor Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston).

Farrell, Beckinsale (Mrs. Wiseman) and Biel do little other than look grim and chase each other through the storm of computer generated pixels. The script by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback offers no wit or panache, with the characters taking a distant back seat to the CPUs. Wiseman, who's main claim to fame is the Underworld series, makes sure that the sets look great, but forgets to issue any commands to his actors beyond run, jump, grimace.

Total Recall quickly degenerates into a series of highly kinetic chase scenes, an impressive array of servers deployed to create virtual mazes for Quaid to race his way towards a jumbled objective. Pretty soon, the reasons for the running around are forgotten, and the brief pauses to move the story along or provide depth to the characters are treated with impatient disdain. The mindless action becomes an end unto itself, and all intellectual engagement is jettisoned into that tunnel through the earth's core.

The movie finally drives itself to depths of absurdity, the character of Lori effectively discarding her entire mission for the sake of justifying the ridiculous pursuit of Quaid with lethal force, and just when the script could not possibly become any more farcical, Chancellor Vilos personally leads an army of tin-pot robots intent on conquering The Colony by travelling with all the mechanized soldiers on the same shuttle system used by commuters. A politician leading an attacking army and using a glorified bus for transportation into battle? The 2012 version of Total Recall is just total imbecility.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Book Review: Tragedy At Second Narrows, by Eric Jamieson (2008)

On June 17 1957, the partially completed Second Narrows Bridge, under construction to connect Vancouver with its northern suburbs, spectacularly collapsed, claiming the lives of 18 workers. It was a shocking event in the life of the young city. In Tragedy At Second Narrows author Eric Jamieson examines the context, people, causes and aftermath of Vancouver's worst industrial disaster.

Through interviews with survivors and their families, as well as press accounts and inquiry records, Jamieson weaves a cohesive narrative of the days leading up to the collapse, the tragic day itself, and the follow-up rescue efforts and inquiries. The depiction of the swashbuckling ironworker culture in the days prior to exacting worker safety standards is eye-opening and sometimes exhilarating, Jamieson finding men remarkably addicted to life as a continuous high-wire act without safety nets.

But the book also contains several feeble moments. Tragedy At Second Narrows contains no shortage of technical passages that attempt to explain the basics of bridge design and, therefore, the causes of the bridge failure during construction. There are other detailed descriptions of the different tasks involved in erecting ironworks during bridge construction, as Jamieson methodically explains each crewman's role. It can be argued that these parts of the book are necessary, but they are also dense, difficult to digest, and almost impossible to follow for anyone who is not a bridge designer or ironworker. A few basic labelled diagrams would have done wonders to illustrate the key concepts, instead of the proverbial thousands of words.

Another weakness in Tragedy At Second Narrows is a discussion of the labour strike and inter-union warfare that erupted post-disaster. Only nominally related to the bridge collapse, these follow-up controversies do not find traction and add little to the book's substance.

Much better are the chapters that set the context of the bridge, including the political intrigue, technical arguments, financial stresses, and the coming together of the deal that triggered the bridge construction at the Second Narrows location. Jamieson paints an effective picture of British Columbia in the grips of a sustained growth spurt, with Premier W.A.C. Bennett and his Transportation Minister "Flying" Phil Gaglardi acting as principle enablers and cheerleaders.

Also enjoyable yet sad are the stories of the men at the centre of the tragedy, particularly the principal project engineer Murray McDonald and his young assistant John McKibbin. The latter was most likely responsible for the design error that resulted in the collapse and the former failed to adequately check and correct the faulty calculation before it became a tragedy. Hands-on professionals dedicated to their jobs, both McDonald and McKibbin perished when the partially completed bridge collapsed into the Burrard Inlet due to an inadequately designed temporary support structure, and their story is a timeless reminder of the need for engineers to be ceaselessly vigilant even when completing the most mundane of tasks.

Tragedy At Second Narrows is clear-eyed and objective, Jamieson wresting an overall agreeable read out of a dark event.

Subtitled: The Story Of The Ironworkers Memorial Bridge.
282 pages plus Notes and Index.
Includes many black and white photos.
Published in hardcover by Harbour Publishing.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

CD Review: Stained Class, by Judas Priest (1978)

On their fourth studio album, Judas Priest find their range, their image, and their mission. Stained Class is an outstanding achievement, filled with Rob Halford exploring ever more impossible notes within his high range, and the guitars of K. K. Downing and Glenn Tipton engaging in frequent memorable friendly solo duels that helped to re-defined the sound metal.

Two of the tracks are all-time heavy metal classics. Opener Exciter explodes out of the blocks at breakneck speed, Les Binks' booming drums heralding the album and introducing a magnetic riff that sets the stage for the entire set. It takes Halford all of one minute and 15 seconds to issue the classic command "Fall to your knees and repent if you please", triggering the first solo. But when he repeats the decree at 3:20, Downing and Tipton really take off with a harmonic solo made in heaven, and containing most of the DNA harvested by Iron Maiden to being metal to a wider audience in the 1980s.

Title track Stained Class has one of metal's most uncompromising introductions, a screeching solo giving way to an unrelenting chugging riff that underpins the entire track as Halford delivers more restrained vocals. The most melodically robust track on the album, Stained Class builds an enormous head of steam, with a chorus full of power and lyricism.

And the goodies keep on coming. Invader is a worship of groove, the tightest selection on the album featuring the band operating as a comprehensive, self-supporting unit. Beyond The Realms Of Death slows the pace down, but only to roll out the red carpet for a magical solo that kicks of at 3:10 and goes on for an incredible 90 seconds of soul, during which time stands still and the angels pause to listen.

Saints In Hell and Heroes End are also strong, Priest delivering one of their deepest albums in terms of quality and consistency.

Years after its release, Stained Class was embroiled in a 1990 controversy when the band was sued by the parents of a teenager who attempted suicide allegedly after listening to Better By You, Better Than Me. After a tumultuous court case the charges were dismissed, Priest unwillingly thrust into the role of defending metal from the wildest of accusations. If one album was destined to receive unexpected additional attention and new fans due to an unfortunate court case, then few deserve it more than Stained Class.


Rob Halford - Vocals
K. K. Downing - Guitar
Glenn Tipton - Guitars
Ian Hill - Bass
Les Binks - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Exciter - 10
2. White Heat, Red Hot - 7
3. Better By You, Better Than Me - 7
4. Stained Class - 10
5. Invader - 9
6. Saints In Hell - 8
7. Savage - 7
8. Beyond The Realms Of Death - 9
9. Heroes End - 8

Average: 8.33

Produced by Dennis MacKay and Judas Priest.
Engineered by Neil Ross, Ken Thomas, and Paul Northfield.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Friday, 3 August 2012

CD Review: Darkness In The Light, by Unearth (2011)

After the excellent The March, Unearth return to, erm, Earth with a bit of disappointing thud. Darkness In The Light is not as bungling as its title suggests, but the fifth full-length album from the Massachusetts metalcore band struggles to find a sharp edge.

Generally annoying clean vocals intrude at regular intervals and uninspired breakdowns frequently arrive too late to save the day. But the biggest drag on Darkness In The Light is the lack of innovative ideas. There is precious little here that hasn't been heard before, and within the album itself a strong sense of sameness prevails, Unearth unable to give the tracks too many distinguishing features. All the tracks offer pretty much the same tempo, the same length, and the same tone.

The album is produced by frequent collaborator Adam Dutkiewicz, best known as Killswitch Engage's guitarist. The recording sounds unfortunately muddy, cramping Unearth' sound which cries out for a more crisp execution.

There is still a load of talent and an attitude of committed engagement to overcome the weaknesses, and Darkness In The Light does offer some appreciated goodies. The energy level is never less than dedicated, and the delivery emphasizes sweaty professionalism. The album never sparkles, but it is also never flat.

The sum of the performances are greater than the individual effort, with Trevor Phipps' vocals still the most noticeable attribute of Unearth's sound. In the absence of a full-time drummer, Justin Foley of Killswitch Engage fills in with enthusiasm, and the guitars of Buz McGrath and Ken Susi create the metalcore wall of sound without straying too far into more ambitious territory. The few attempts at solos lack either conviction or destination.

Darkness In The Light is caught in the grey zone where it can neither be loved nor hated: its just lingers, like clouds turning attempted daylight into prematurely gloomy dusk.


John Maggard - Bass
Trevor Phipps - Vocals
Buz McGrath - Guitar
Ken Susi - Guitar, Clean Vocals

Drums: Justin Foley of Killswitch Engage

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Watch It Burn - 8
2. Ruination Of The Lost - 8
3. Shadows In The Light - 7
4. Eyes Of Black - 7
5. Last Wish - 7
6. Arise The War Cry - 8
7. Equinox - 7
8. Coming Of The Dark - 7
9. The Fallen - 8
10. Overcome - 7
11. Disillusion - 7

Average: 7.36

Produced  by Adam Dutkiewicz.
Engineered by Adam Dutkiewicz and Ken Susi.
Mastered by Alan Douches.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Movie Review: Savages (2012)

Oliver Stone opens the taps of violence and gore and wades knee deep into the world of drug turf wars. Savages is stark, vivid, and occasionally beautiful in its brutality, but ultimately falls in the gap between where insufficient wit meets extreme violence.

War veteran Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and sensitive botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson) are best friends, and run a successful boutique marijuana operation in California. They grow and supply high grade weed to a large network of distributors, and openly share a girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively), better known as simply O. A ruthless Mexican drug cartel run by Elena (Salma Hayek) wants to muscle in on their business, with the negotiations engineered by lead henchmen Lado (Benicio del Toro), who never stops at simply killing when torturing and decapitating are available options.

When the negotiations fail, Elena's cartel kidnaps O to force Chon and Ben to cooperate. As O endures torture and confinement by Lado and his fellow brutes, Chon and Ben turn to their protector for help, a corrupt Drugs Enforcement Administration agent named Dennis (John Travolta). He provides them with enough information to expose weaknesses in Elena's empire, including revealing the locations of safe houses used as money collection and transfer points. With all sides getting desperate, Elena's daughter Magda (Sandra Echeverria) is also placed at risk as a showdown looms.

Stone places three relatively fresh faces at the front of Savages, and the lack of star power among Chon, Ben and O works well. Stone is free to fill the canvass typically occupied by star personas with some unique colours. Taylor Kitsch (who also starred in 2012's Battleships and John Carter) is the least interesting, but at least here is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars openly enjoying his residual aggressiveness and not succumbing to torture by internal demons. Aaron Johnson gets the more sensitive role, Ben a brilliant botanist and also a caring soul who uses the proceeds of his drugs business to help disadvantaged African villages.

Most engaging is Blake Lively, television's Gossip Girl building her big screen reputation, narrating the movie and proving to be not only the common point in a sizzling sexual threesome, but also the fulcrum of the larger battle between Elena, Ben and Chon. A disruptive prisoner, O is enough of a nuisance to earn an audience with Elena, a savory encounter in which each woman expresses condescending pity towards the other.

The secondary characters are brought to life by movie stalwarts. John Travolta is all smiles and evasiveness as Dennis, a federal agent one misstep away from life in prison, while Benicio Del Toro just ploughs through Savages as the closest thing to the embodiment of the title, but a man who is also as clever as he is violent. Salma Hayek gives Elena some depth, a woman who inherited the business and who clearly enjoys the required ruthlessness, but who is also unable to fortify all her weak spots.

Stone tackles the violence of drug crime head-on, and throws it all on the screen. Mass decapitations, torture, setting victims ablaze, explosions and routine shootings litter Savages, creating a world where lives are cheaper than drugs. It may be slightly over the top in a California context, but Stone is certainly true to the stream of headlines chronicling the endless atrocities in Mexico.

Between the sex, the blood, the corruption and the rival criminals calling each other savages for vastly different reasons, Savages always maintains interest. Despite the chopping of heads, the movie just lacks a cutting edge to push it towards the hyper stylized world it seeks to occupy.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Movie Review: The Last Samurai (2003)

A spectacular historical epic, The Last Samurai takes a long time to tell its slow tale, but also provides plenty of heart and soul in lamenting the end of a more honourable era. Tom Cruise journeys through the Japanese landscape in a state of wonderment, and springs into energetic action on cue.

It's 1876, and Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is a veteran of the Indian Wars, a recognized was hero now mostly attached to the bottle. Algren despises his former commander Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), but nevertheless joins Bagley in accepting a handsome payment to travel to Japan and help train the Emperor's army. Emperor Meiji is attempting to modernize Japan but is unable to resist the influence of his selfish advisers and foreign meddlers while staring down a rebellion led by samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe).

Algren's poorly trained troops are annihilated when thrown prematurely into battle, and he is taken prisoner. Incarcerated for a year in Katsumoto's village but treated respectfully, Algren overcomes his dependence on alcohol, recovers from his battle wounds and learns the samurai culture, values, and combat skills. Gradually he adopts their habits, and after helping to save Katsumoto's life from hired assassins, the two men become close friends. They join forces to take on the vastly superior army assembled by the Emperor under Bagley's command in a final existential battle for Japan's future.

At 154 minutes, The Last Emperor is not in a hurry. Director Edward Zwick allows the characters and events to soak in atmosphere, and the final 30 minutes are occupied by a massive, genuinely spectacular grand battle of swords and guts against guns and cannons. The middle third of the movie is where Algren spends his year of captivity, and while the scenery is beautiful and Algren's transformation from hired gun to believer in the samurai cause is achieved with integrity, time does seem to stand still and the film's progress appears to take place in real time.

In addition to the long running time, The Last Samurai does carry into battle several similarities with Lawrence Of Arabia. A westerner with empathy for an eastern culture joining a rebellion of mammal-mounted warriors against a more modern and better equipped empire is the superficial summary of both story lines. The Last Samurai also introduces photographer Simon Graham (Timothy Spall) to chronicle the struggle, similar to the Jackson Bentley character in Lawrence Of Arabia. The Last Samurai is, however, only loosely tied to actual history, with some of the characters and incidents drawn from real counterparts but mostly representing an era rather than events.

As the only star name in a grand movie, Cruise carries the film with earnest respect for Japan, and explodes into impressive combat action with dedication. Watanabe's samurai Katsumoto represents the noble Japan of old, where the warrior's honour and integrity shaped the land. That lyrical mythology may obscure the less splendid aspects of the samurai culture is to be expected, and here Katsumoto is all about resisting the corruption of foreign powers wishing to buy influence through a combination of intimidation and military bribery.

Zwick does not shy away from using some slow motion shots, including slow motion replays, to highlight the balletic brilliance of some of the sword play. Both Cruise and Watanabe, as well as the character of Katsumoto's fierce and loyal lieutenant Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada), enjoy moments of pure athletic heroism in the midst of brutal battles well captured by Zwick and his cinematographer John Toll.

The Last Samurai is an enjoyable epic, a journey into the mists of a bygone era in Japan's history and a salute to old-fashioned film-making.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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